Remembering Zhou En Lai on his 45th death anniversary

Zhou En Lai

Premier Zhou En Lai was one of the greatest revolutionary leaders and Marxists of all time. A month ago we commemorated his 45th death anniversary. It is hard to envisage how a person so embedded in mandarin background could pull out of its clutches to tread the life of a proletarian revolutionary. No Comrade so firmly stood by Chairman Mao in every juncture, From the Long March, to Civil War to Socialist Revolution, to Great Leap Forward and culminating in the Cultural Revolution, even the fiercest storm could not shake the premier of his feet .In complying with Chairman Mao he was reminiscent of man incarnating in different forms. Zhou lacked Mao’s charisma, creativity and organisational skills, but as a leader in his own right he could have even emulated the Chairman. I doubt if even Mao could as astutely or diplomatically handle foreign relations or affairs .In many ways the Premier kept the coal burning for a Socialist Society to thrive. Zhou En Lai’s evolution or into a Revolutionary Communist ,transition into supporting Mao and the manner he steered a ship in the darkest waters when administering his country  ,is simply the story of one of the most remarkable men who ever lived.


Comrade Zhou was brought up in a large family household within which he and his parents constituted only one sub-unit, to ensure collective security for everyone. However, within those boundaries, Zhou suffered some heartbreaking losses and rejections, firstly by his natural parents who gave him up when he was only a few months old, then by his adoptive father dying even before he could come to know him, and later at the age of ten, his 2 mothers died in quick succession.

Zhou first came to national prominence during the May Fourth Movement of 1919 when he led a raid on a local government office during the student protests against the humiliating Versailles Treaty. In 1920 Zhou moved to France where he was active among radical Chinese students. In 1921 he became a member of the French Communist Party and spent the next two years travelling in Europe.

Upon his return to China, he served as the chairman of the political department at the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou when it was founded in 1926 (Whampoa’s Soviet Comintern sponsors saw this posting as a way to balance Chiang Kai-shek’s right-wing nationalism).

Zhou was educated in the Dr Zhang Boling’s Nankai School with Western help and then went around Japan, France, Belgium, Germany and the Soviet Union. He was active in the May 4th Student meetings. To evade the attention of Chinese opponents he made effective use of the tiny pockets of Western rule on Chinese Soil. During the May4th Student meetings he lodged at his mother-in-laws house in the French concession in Tinajinb in 1919, 8 years later after revolutionary plotting he took refuge in the same French concession. After the historic Nanchang uprising Zhou took refuge in the British flag at Honkong.

Zhou’s path into evolving into a leading member of the Communist Party was initiated with a series of refusals to accepting leading positions in the party – a trait of humility that remained a permanent feature of his long life.. At the 5th Congress he had surprised his friends by deferring to Chen Duxiu instead of going along with his latter critics. He went on to support Li Li San (non-Maoist who totally supported Stalin’s urban based Bolshevik line), and in 1930 supported Wang Ming. Her again when people wanted to make him president over Mao Zedong, he refused to accept.

Comrade Zhou’s life took a historic turn when he backed Mao Tse Tung in the historic conference at Tsunyi in 1935 after the historic Long March. From being Mao’s critique and superior he turned into Mao’s servant and supporter. Earlier Zhou had made a criticism of Mao’s line but in the Ningdu conference of 1932 his showed that even if he differed with Mao his criticisms were always balanced and he always praised Mao when he could.

What was historically most significant that Zhou, in the later phase of the Long March Zhou backed Mao against Zhang Guotao. He could easily have ditched Mao once the guerrilla methods had served his turn. During the rectification campaign similarly Zhou opposed Wang Ming, who was a major contender for power and one time Zhou En Lai’s collaborator. This loyalty Zhou showed to Comrade Mao was something that lasted lifelong. From comrade Mao he learned the importance of peasant-based revolution in contrast to urban-based revolution. Here he displayed his utmost humility as a Communist always bowing before Mao like a pupil bowing before a teacher.

When the Kuomintang broke with the Communists, Zhou managed to escape the white terror. It has been said that he had been captured and released on the orders of Chiang Kai-Shek, to repay a debt from an occasion when Zhou had saved Chiang from violent leftists in Guangzhou. Zhou eventually made his way to the Jiangxi base area and gradually began to shift his loyalty away from the more orthodox, urban-focused branch of the CPC to Mao’s new brand of rural revolution, and became one of the prominent members of the CPC. This transition was completed early in the Long March, when in January 1935 Zhou threw his total support to Mao in his power struggle with the 28 Bolsheviks Faction.

In the Yan’an years Zhou was active in promoting a united anti-Japanese front. As a result he played a major role in the Xi’an Incident, helped to secure Chiang Kai-shek’s release, and negotiated the Second CPC-KMT United Front, and coining the famous phrase “Chinese should not fight Chinese but a common enemy: the invader”. Zhou spent the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) as CPC ambassador to Chiang’s wartime government in Chongqing and took part in the failed negotiations following World War II.


No doubt Premier Zhou did not come into the limelight like the Chairman,Lin Biao,Liu Shao Chi, or the Gang of Four. In many junctures he was sidelined, particularly in the Lin Biao era and stage when anti Lin-Biao campaign was at a crescendo in the mid 1970’s.Zhou was not elected Mao’s successor or played such a prominent role in the Cultural Revolution. However no comrade stabilised proceedings to the extent of the Premier when Red Guard clashes had peaked or when chaos was at a crescendo after the fall of Lin Biao.

On the International front I very much doubt even Mao could have replaced Premier Zhou, who was an absolute master as a diplomat in establishing international relations.

Most bravely Zhou condemned Soviet Social Imperialism in 1968, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. He also most forthrightly combated interventionism of America in affairs of other countries .Zhou presided over the Bandung conference .No comrade internationally made such a contribution to maintaining peaceful co -existence in the Leninist light as the premier. Zhou won the admiration of many a leader worldwide, be it in the Middle East or Africa. No Leader could ever portray the essence of politics China as articulately to Westerners.

We must praise Zhou for opposing the formation of a Communist International applying Leninist dialectics and on the International front putting maximum effort in defending CPC’S anti-revisionist stand in the Great Debate, One of the premier’s most profound writings are on how fascism would take shape in a3rd world country, having it’s unique characteristics. It was arguably the best ever writing on fascism by a third world leader

Hard to name a pair of great revolutionaries so different from one another, but yet so close, like Mao and Zhou. Mao would be like the bones while Zhou like the flesh. It is remarkable that the premier never entered into antagonism with his great leader,inspite of a severe crisis faced during the Socialist Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Without the leadership of Premier Zhou, in holding China together, I doubt the Socialist Revolution, Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution would even have taken shape.

I can’t forget Zhou reducing the role of the Army or PLA in the late 1960’s in controlling civilians .Significant that the Premier never spoke out against left sectarian errors committed by Mao’s Gang of Four Group.

I hardly have the words to do adequate justice to Zhou’s humility in bowing down before Mao in 1935, after initiating self criticism in Tsunyi.

Zhou’s most notable meetings were .with Korea in 1950, in Moscow in  1950 and 1953, Geneva Conference in 1954,in the Bandung conference in 1955 ,in the Asian-African Conference of 1955 ,with Edgar Snow in 1965 ,with Kissinger in 1971 ,Nixon in 1972 and those with Indian Comrade  Souren Bose in 1973. The premiere resembled an actor playing a huge spectrum of roles. Zhou brilliantly wove relations with North Korea by building s solidarity links in combating American interventionism, with Soviet Russia to provide aid and in building a front of all countries confronting tyranny of America in Vietnam. Tooth and nail Zhou fought against the United nations resolution on Korea. Zhou was the ultimate mascot amongst diplomats in combating imperialism. Significant that Chairman Moa did not vats USSR in 1953, after Stalin’s death.With the bravery of a soldier, at no juncture did Premier Zhou succumb to imperialist dictates and paved the way for sharpening the cutting edge of anti imperialist struggle.

In 16 minutes sitting with Snow in 1965, Zhou En lai demonstrated his mastery of a wide range of topics: industrial and agricultural development; the looming U.S. involvement in Vietnam; the issue of Taiwan and the United Nations; China’s nuclear capability; the Bandung Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement he helped to found; the reason why Westerners often misunderstand China; and much more.

They are a testimony to how China did not display even shades of nation chauvinism or impose itself on other Communist parties. I can’t forget the most dialectical and analytical depth of the Souren Bose encounter, which illustrated practice of mass line .No tendency of any big brotherly treatment by the Premier, respecting that India had it’s own distinct characteristics. The Premier was critical of C.P.I (M.L) calling China’s chairman our chairman classing the entire bourgeoisie as comprador, and upholding ‘annihilation of the class enemy. With surgical or dialectical precision Zhou opposed CPC or China exporting revolution abroad. The Premier at the very root summed up the left adventurist aspects og the C.P.I. (M.L) but still defended it’s general orientation.

I can’t forget how heroically the Premier dealt with Indian Chauvinism inspired by Nehru, during the Sino-India War. I also applaud the role played by the premier when Lin Biao’s intervention came into prominence to de –throne Chairman Mao. With remarkable tenacity he kept the coal burning. Mao may never have remained in his place but for Zhou. Zhou also handled the tension of the Sino-Soviet border conflict with great composure and tactical skill.

Zhou possessed the element of humanism,  which manifested in his meetings with all sections of the people. Rarely did a leader display such inner love or spiritual connotations. He was not romantic like Chairman Mao, but equally sensitive. Some Western biographers place Premier Zhou on the same pedestal as Chairman Mao. I find a lot of personality resemblance between Zhou En lai and Tarimela Nagi Reddy, particularly in regard to humility. It is truly remarkable ho w Zhou created no personality cult around him. It is remarkable that from start to finish he was never in pursuit of high posts or contending for power.

Tooth and nail trends should be refuted that fail to uphold Zhou as a true proletarian revolutionary, and class him as a revisionist or rightist. Such comrades should try to place themselves in the same boat as Premier Zhou. It is strange that Deng Xiaopoing and revisionist CPC idolizes Premier Zhou, as though he endorsed the four modernizations and opposed the Cultural Revolution. In my view Premier Zhou was one of the greatest protagonists of the concept of massline. In my view the Socialist State of Peoples Republic of China would not have survived without the advent or hand of Premier Zhou.I strongly disagree with Professor Sison that Zhou was in favour of capitalist reforms and bourgeois modernisation. and sided with the right against the feet.It is possible that left sectarian drift from mass line was a result of trends rejecting Premier Zhou like the RCP,USA or the Massline group in India.

Sadly he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in November 1973.I am curious whether Zhou would have made a self -criticism of himself had he lived on after 1976,and what his evaluation would have been for the Cultural Revolution being de-railed. I would have loved him even to express his voice over the injustices and let sectarian errors in the Cultural Revolution.

Zhou En Lai’s evolution or into a Revolutionary Communist, transition into supporting Mao and the manner he steered a ship in the darkest waters when administering his country, is simply the story of one of the most remarkable men who ever lived.


Forces in the 1970’s like Revolutionary Communist Party of USA, led by Bob Avakian bracketed Zhou En lai as a capitalist roader or revisionist. Today other Maoist sections which are pro-Gonzalo,categorize him similarly. Chairman Joma Sison. , KN Ramchanadran or late Suniti Kumar Ghosh, classed the premier as a Centrist or Rightist, who fell out in the later stages of the Cultural Revolution. It is Indian revolutionary thinkers like Vara Vara Rao, Late Kondapalli Seetharamiah, Chandra Pulla Reddy and Harbhajan Sohi who upheld Zhou as a true proletarian revolutionary. I can never forget how late Comrade Harbhajan Sohi revered the premier, or even Research Unit for Political Economy, Mumbai.or even late William Hinton.Even Professor G.N.Saibaba held him in high esteem or even Sashi Prakash.Vara Vara Rao and Sashi Prakash uphed the premier as a great Communist, who commited aberrations.

Zhou’s important errors were made through reinstating Deng Xiaoping into the fold of the party in 1973 and not awarding tacit support to Mao’s Gang of four namely Jiang Quing ,Zhang Chun Qiao ,Wang Hongwen and Yao Yenyuan.during the Cultural Revolution. These comrades in later stages after 1971 classed Premier Zhou as a Confucian and Lin Biaoist element and waged an ideological struggle against him. Arguably he also displayed leniency or liberalism in facilitating China’s entry into the United Nations. Still comrades mist not forget the complexity of the balance of forces in that time or circumstances that made it imperative for the Premier to undertake certain actions. As Comrade Harbhajan Sohi stated that ‘Afterall it was a 2-line Struggle within a Socialist Society. Perhaps had Zhou become part of the radical group the balance would have been lost. The inability of the Zhou Enlai group to unite with the Maoist group led by comrades like Chiang Ching and Chang Chun Chiao, paved the way for capitalist roaders to triumph. The Premier never persecuted by red guards himself, but was unable to save other comrades who became victims.

Quoting Professor Joma Sison “Zhou Enlai was ultimately a centrist on the question of the GPCR after the Left failed to keep him as a Middle ally and drove him to side with the Right headed by Deng. He was at first a willing ally of the Left supporting the GPCR and waving the Red Book, especially in the years 1966-70. He was definitely a Marxist-Leninist revoluionary in the new democratic and socialist stages of the Chinese revolution until he sided with the Right against the Left on the line of laying aside the class struggle as key link in favor of bourgeois modernization, capitalist reforms and opening up to the US and world capitalist system under the pretext of countering Soviet social imperialism.”

Marxists must also analyse why antagonistic relation s developed between the Gang of four and Zhou .Debatably it illustrates that mere 2 line struggle within a Communist part was insufficient for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to reach it’s objectives. I can’t express my regret that the Gang of four paid no tribute to Zhou, in his funeral, which was one of the most emotional farewells in the history of mankind.

Some historians distort facts by stating that Chairman Mao had fallen out with Zhou nad deliberately did not attend his homage meeting. The fact is that Mao was very ill, but still sent a wreath to the funeral. It was very unfortunate that comrades of the Gang of Four prevented any national mourning paying homage to Premier Zhou. I disagree however that Chairman Mao did not aknowledge Zhou’s achievements.

Noteworthy that during the student rebellion in Tiananmen square in 1989 protesting the Deng Xiapoing regime, workers and peasants carried portraits of Zhou with Mao in solidarity.

It is ironic that even reactionary biographers of Zhou like Gao Wenquian ‘In the last perfect Revolutionary’, class him as an absolute loyalist to Mao. This contradicts the evaluation of Zhou as a supporter of the pro-capitalist road. of Deng Xiaoping. Even it has flung the essence of the Socialist path of CPC into the grave; in a subtle manner it reveals the premier’s shades of political genius. Arguably Dick Wilson’s bio does the Premier greatest justice, amongst Western writers.

I recommend every cadre to read the ‘Selected Works of Zhou En Lai’,Tallks of  Chou En Lai with Souren Bose’, Zhou’s writings on fascism in ‘Selected Writings’, Zhou’s talks with Edgar Snow in 1965. and his speech in the 10th Congress of the CPC.His writings on party building reveal great insight and dialectical mastery. I would also love readers to refer to Zhou’s portray in Red Star over China and Edgar Snow’s China.

Harsh Thakor is a political commentator or freelance Journalist who has toured India and written articles on democratic blogs like ‘Ottos War Room’ and ‘Democracy and Class Struggle.’on arrange of topics [email protected]

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